Urban social justice movements - what chance do they have?

Megafonen (The Megaphone) and Pantrarna (The Panthers) are examples of new social movements that are growing up among youth in the suburbs, most often among youth with immigrant backgrounds. They are working against the dismantling of the welfare state and for the regeneration ofthe suburbs. They are a new form of organisation, according to researchers at REMESO.

Husby district in Stockholm, May 2013. The police kill a man armed with a knife in a flat. The death becomes the spark that ignites a series of riots in the suburbs in the Stockholm area, and also in other parts of Sweden. It is the second time this has happened in four years. In the summer of 2009 a similar wave of disturbances ripped through the suburbs of Malmö, Gothenburg and Uppsala.

Social unrest in marginalised suburbs is nothing new. Brixton 1981, Los Angeles 1992, Paris 2005, London 2011, the list is long. What is new is that it is happening in Swedish suburbs.

The chief protagonists are very often stigmatised and hence frustrated young people, often without jobs and rejected by society, due in part to their immigrant backgrounds. In our increasingly polarised cities, the suburbs are seen as pockets of hopelessness and unemployment, where there is little faith in the future.

But the youth are not just fighting in the streets, they are organising themselves. And it is these new urban social justice organisations that are attracting the interest of the researchers.

“We see them as a new form of autonomous people’s movement,” says Aleksandra Ålund, professor at REMESO, the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society. “And our research questions look at what sort of demands they are making, how they work together with other protagonists in society, and how they can survive in the somewhat longer term. They must form alliances; otherwise, they cannot survive. But the risk with alliances is also that groups may be co-opted or crushed to death.”

This is what happened many times with established “immigrant organisations”, formed on ethnic grounds, according to the researchers. They have not succeeded in articulating or meeting the variety of needs of people in the suburbs. They are organised on the basis of cultural or ethnic identities, and are dependent on state support for their existence. In this situation there is a risk of being co-opted. The same is true for traditional social movements.

“The political parties have also failed the suburbs, which are fighting against structurally caused exclusion and need significant investment which is not forthcoming,” says Professor Ålund.

These needs are reflected in the statistics, where youth unemployment in vulnerable suburbs might reach 40-50%, compared with just over 20% for Sweden as a whole. The figures for child poverty are also alarmingly high, as they also are for the number of young people neither working nor studying.

The new movements, symbolised by Megafonen in Stockholm and Pantrarna in Gothenburg, have a local base and identity in the suburbs, but a globally-inspired orientation in their work and their networking with other similar Swedish movements. For example Pantrarna (The Panthers) were inspired by the Black Panthers in the United States.

They combine change work at a local level with opinion work directed outwards. In initiatives for self-help and “empowerment”, they invest in adult education and lecture programmes. But they are also sometimes criticised. This is how Megafonen describes the role of the police in the suburbs.

“The police teach us in practice what our teachers in school have taught us in theory: that as a poor working, non-white person you are worthless, both in Sweden and in the rest of the world. And this is what Megafonen write about the riots: “Riots... are the only way to express our frustration when other democratic avenues are closed to us. There is organisation here, peaceful demonstrations have been held, but our initiatives for dialogue have remained unanswered.”

At REMESO there are now several synergistic projects focused on the suburbs and the new social justice movements. Professor Ålund is investigating the opportunities for and barriers against these new movements gaining influence and taking part in democratic processes. Magnus Dahlstedt is investigating initiatives to improve the living conditions of young people, and the relationship of these young people to the authorities and the rest of society. The project will continue through 2016.